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Conversations with Edna O'Brien

Alice Hughes Kersnowski

Publication Year: 2014

"Who's Afraid of Edna O'Brien?" asks an early interviewer in Conversations with Edna O'Brien. With over fifty years of published novels, biographies, plays, telecasts, short stories, and more, it is hard not to be intimidated by her. An acclaimed and controversial Irish writer, O'Brien (b. 1932) saw her early works, starting in 1960 with The Country Girls, banned and burned in Ireland, but often read in secret. Her contemporary work continues to spark debates on the rigors and challenges of Catholic conservatism and the struggle for women to make a place for themselves in the world without anxiety and guilt. The raw nerve of emotion at the heart of her lyrical prose provokes readers, challenges politicians, and proves difficult for critics to place her.

In these interviews, O'Brien finds her own critical voice and moves interviewers away from a focus on her life as the "once infamous Edna" toward a focus on her works. Parallels between Edna O'Brien and her literary muse and mentor, James Joyce, are often cited in interviews such as Phillip Roth's description of The Country Girls as "rural Dubliners." While Joyce is the centerpiece of O'Brien's literary pantheon, allusions to writers such as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, and Woolf become a medium for her critical voice. Conversations with contemporary writers Phillip Roth and Glenn Patterson reveal Edna O'Brien's sense of herself as a contemporary writer. The final interview included here, with BBC personality William Crawley at Queen's University, Belfast, is a synthesis of her acceptance and fame as an Irish writer and an Irish woman and an affirmation of her literary authority.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Series: Literary Conversations Series

Title Page, Copyright, Other Works by the Author

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xvi

“Who’s Afraid of Edna O’Brien?” asks an early interviewer in Conversations with Edna O’Brien. When the question was posed in 1967, O’Brien had written six novels. With over fifty years of published novels, biographies, plays, telecasts, short stories, and more, it is hard not to be awed by her accomplishments. An acclaimed and controversial Irish writer, O’Brien saw her...


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pp. xvii-2

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Who’s Afraid of Edna O’Brien

Mary Maher

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pp. 3-7

“. . . and she looked perfectly lovely in the paper this morning, you know.” The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to a local resident and conveyed approval. Hair done, perhaps, and a fresh little pair of gloves: the girl who writes about guilt, sex, perversion, scandal, and disheveled lives arrives trimly groomed in Cork.
She was certainly there. Everyone connected with the...

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Edna O’Brien Talks to David Heycock about Her New Novel, A Pagan Place

David Heycock

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pp. 8-12

Edna O’Brien: I wanted this time, in A Pagan Place, to get into the kingdom of childhood. I wanted to get the minute-to-minute essence of what it is when you’re very young, when you’re both meticulously aware of everything that’s going on around you and totally uncritical. I wrote it in the second person singular because I felt that in every person there are two selves: I...

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Our Edna—A Song of S.W.3.

Elgy Gillespie

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pp. 13-17

Two memories came into my head when I went to see Edna O’Brien. One was of reading The Country Girls when I was fifteen and liking Catherine because she was fat and went to dances in frilly blouses, like me. The other was of August Is a Wicked Month, which I thought was a souring thing to read, a disemboweling of all female woes too painful to be printed. You feel...

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Miss O’Brien Recalls Hostile Reception Experienced by Chekhov and O’Casey

Peadar Macgiolla Cearr

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pp. 18-20

A feeling that this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival had been successful for the organizers but not for the writer Miss Edna O’Brien prevailed yesterday morning in the Constitution Room of the Shelbourne Hotel filled for the final press conference of the festival. However, half an hour later, as Miss O’Brien excused herself to take her son to the airport one felt that she would...

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Edna O’Brien, The Art of Fiction No. 82

Shusha Guppy

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pp. 21-39

Edna O’Brien resembles one of her own heroines: beautiful in a subtle, wistful way, with reddish-blond hair, green eyes, and a savage sense of humor. She lives alone in an airy, spacious apartment in Little Venice, London, near the Canal. From her balcony, wrought-iron steps lead down to a vast tree-filled park, where O’Brien often can be found strolling during breaks from...

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A Conversation with Edna O’Brien

Philip Roth

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pp. 40-48

The Irish writer Edna O’Brien, who has lived in London now for many years, moved recently to a wide boulevard of imposing nineteenth-century facades, a street that in the 1870s, when it was built, was renowned, she tells me, for its mistresses and kept women. The real estate agents have taken to calling this corner of the Maida Vale district “the Belgravia of tomorrow”; at...

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Edna O’Brien Takes the High Road

Ken Adachi

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pp. 49-52

“Books are always difficult to write,” Edna O’Brien, the curator of wild Irish passions, says. “But this last novel was probably more arduous to complete than any other. My nerves were more fractured than normal. It was like carrying a load of bricks on my shoulders.”
The High Road is O’Brien’s ninth novel but the first in eleven years. She wrote it in fits and starts, in between...

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Dame Edna

Eileen Battersby

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pp. 53-57

Although most literary critics would nominate Hemingway as the writer who changed the shape of American prose, there are commentators who would just as easily select him as the writer who demonstrated how the life could become bigger than the work.
After Hemingway, enter Norman Mailer, who is by now more famous for his life than for the work he has...

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The Books Interview: A Schooling for Scandal

Peter Guttridge

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pp. 58-61

There have already been mutterings in Irish literary circles that Edna O’Brien has had the temerity to write a biography of the Big Man, James Joyce. But even her bitterest critics must admit, however grudgingly, that in just 50,000 words she has caught him, man and writer. O’Brien has been immersed in Joyce for over forty years. She loves language and “the stringing of...

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Deep Down in the Woods

Robert McCrum

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pp. 62-65

Observer: What is In the Forest about?
Edna O’Brien: Ostensibly it’s about a triple murder in a forest, but I believe that the novelist is the psychic and moral historian of his or her society. So it’s about that part of Ireland I happen to know very well. It’s about that part of Ireland, and the darkness that still prevails.

Obs: Was there a specific moment of inspiration, like a news...

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Francine Stock

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pp. 66-68

We begin with Greek tragedies, specifically the fate of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In the play by Euripides, the king is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter so that the goddess Artemis might look favorable upon his forces in the forthcoming assault on the city of Troy. The soldiers are waiting for wind to sail to Troy to reclaim Helen, wife of...

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Conversation with Edna O’Brien

Glenn Patterson

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pp. 69-71

Glenn Patterson: The way you talk about your writing and the relationship with language calls to mind the writer you have referred to as not just your hero, but your master: Joyce. In fact, you’ve just written a biography of Joyce for Penguin Lives.
O’Brien: Yeah, a brief life. Even though it was brief, that wasn’t easy either. I remember once, I was in New York teaching a term at NYU, and I...

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Edna O’Brien

Mark Lawson

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pp. 72-76

Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Country Girls, the first part of Edna O’Brien’s trilogy about rural Ireland’s uncertain emergence into the modern world. This and other novels, including A Pagan Place, delighted literary critics but infuriated priests because of their sexual frankness. Catholic clergy of the time were discouraged from attending theaters...

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The Troubles with Edna

Jane Hardy

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pp. 77-80

Her first book, The Country Girls, shocked many in Ireland and, as Jane Hardy finds out, Edna O’Brien, whose new play is on in Belfast this week, is still every bit as controversial.
The voice on the phone has a west of Ireland accent, is low in a manner that suggests cigarettes or sensuality, and belongs to the most famous female Irish writer of the last fifty years. In other...

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Edna O’Brien

William Crawley

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pp. 81-96

William Crawley: Welcome to my front room. I mean, this has now become such a homely space for me, I feel like it’s partly mine! Maybe Queen’s will mortgage it out to me someday. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to our conversation today and to involve you in the conversation as well, because Edna O’Brien is so many things in one life: a novelist, a short story...

Key Resources

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pp. 97-100


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pp. 101-104

E-ISBN-13: 9781617038723
E-ISBN-10: 1621039714
Print-ISBN-13: 9781621039716

Page Count: 128
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Literary Conversations Series